Fledgling, digital-only brands are increasingly turning to pop-up experiences to satisfy customers’ needs.

Many companies planning to open physical stores for the first-time use pop-ups to test the water as they enter the world of bricks and mortar retail. Existing as the epitome of agile retail, pop-ups are a natural extension of the spontaneous way emerging, digital-only brands have grown. Yes, pop-ups may be temporary, but the long-term value they bring means their role in customer experience can be permanent.

As social media continues to develop and brands experiment with new tools to grab the attention of audiences, Instagram still takes centre stage – particularly since it overtook the number of Snapchat users in 2017. Famous for high levels of engagement, ever-increasing follower count and growing visual appeal, without owning an Instagram account, fashion brands are really missing a trick. With 59% of Instagram Stories now leading to a shopping cart, brands are increasingly using the social media site as a base to form and expand their companies.

We’ve seen the development of an Instagram-born brand first-hand through our work with street-style fashion label, The Couture Club. The brand felt that launching a pop-up in the Trafford Centre, Manchester, would help them embark on the first crucial step into physical retail. The brand’s success here shows how investing in pop-ups can play a powerful strategic role for emerging brands when connecting with consumers and improve their customer journey, whilst testing all the necessary elements of a physical store in today’s retail environment.

The Couture Club Pop Up

Pop-Ups are Retail

As the retail world grows and ecommerce matures, the online world still only represents a small fraction of overall retail sales. Brands are realising that shoppers want both an online and offline experience, explaining why many ecommerce brands are continually popping up on the high street and in shopping malls. Take beauty brand Birchbox, whose three-month pop-up in Carnaby Street over winter 2017,“mirrored the online shopping experience” and Amazon’s first UK pop-up, “Home of Black Friday”, based in Soho. Both these brands combined the online experiences their fans love with a physical and hands-on experience that could be transposed to the high street.

Any offline experience – pop-up or otherwise – has its work cut out. These shopping experiences must deliver against customers’ high expectations when it comes to how they spend their precious leisure time. Even though browsing online may take care of the nuts and bolts of convenience shopping through offering things like multitudes of delivery options, many people still enjoy the process of going shopping. They can learn about and discover new shopping areas whilst having fun and socialising with others. It’s important for pop-ups to perfectly place themselves in the retail landscape as millennials and Gen Z have grown up with the ease of shopping online, so when they go to shop in physical stores they thrive off, and demand, fresh, engaging and unique experiences that they can’t get online.

Build Inclusivity

As designers, creating an authentic and imaginative store experience that engages everyone who comes through the door is a challenge. Because The Couture Club’s mantra is to encourage people to ‘create their own identity’, the pop-up needed to allow customers to experience what it’s like to be part of the brand in the real world, not just online. Up until this point, the brand had grown exclusively through Instagram and ecommerce. The brand’s fast developing and strong following has allowed it to win an almost cult-like status. Getting to know the likes, needs, and expectations of these consumers was vital to the project’s success, as it needed to reach out to new customers, yet also reward existing ones with an opportunity to see the brand come to life in new ways.

The space Start Design helped create was also vital in meeting consumer expectations, as well as being the perfect opportunity to amplify the buzz around the brand. The nature of experiences like this support online transactions by drawing customers in and giving them an opportunity to see, feel and try on the product, whilst also connecting with fellow shoppers. Relationships with reality stars also help to support the brand’s aim, giving shoppers the chance to buy into the fashion of their favourite reality TV celebrities.

Creating a destination that served the purpose of pre-night out destination, combined with a classic store setting, was a natural progression as it offered somewhere for guys to meet up and prep-up with new strides. With a resident DJ providing the sound track, striking tattoo-inspired artwork that echoed the passion, style and creativity of the brand’s loyal followers, and even the opportunity for a haircut at the in-house barbers, these extras all provided a unique way to create memorable brand experience.

Drive Agility

When getting a brand into the real world it’s about being adaptable, yet always working to a high standard. With The Couture Club, we succeeded in creating concept designs in just a couple of days, which were then presented, costed and signed off within a week. This meant the pop-up could be built imminently and trading could begin within a month. Working at this speed is refreshing and very much in keeping with the pace of development in the digital world.

This is also in stark contrast to the time-consuming design and development process required for a permanent store. Because of their style, pop-ups are a fast way to respond to changing customer needs and shopper behaviours. The process empowers brands to get ideas to market quickly, test these with shoppers and then incorporate any responses or feedback into future plans, something that many traditional retailers need to get to grips with.

Empower Experimentation

The Couture Club has grown spontaneously, collaboratively and fast. This was never so evident as when we presented our retail plans and concepts to the brand owners, Ross and Scott. They felt that sharing some work-in-progress footage of The Couture Club’s first retail store on Instagram, would create inevitable engagement, and also entice feedback from the brand’s many followers. The buzz from the fans following this live video emphasised how pop-ups give new brands a physical space where they can experiment and quickly learn the art of store-based retail.

Deliver Impactful, Relevant, Shareable Content

Pop-ups do come with a risk. They can live or die following the content they deliver. If the experience isn’t pulled off in the right way, the backlash on the brand can be fatal. It’s important for the best temporary stores to produce a high impact, so they can pull people in with a meaningful and relevant content-rich experience. It’s also key for the consumer to remember and share their experience with their network, whilst also know they can go home and still engage with the brand online.

Valuable customer experiences

Example of Instagram pop ups

Every store should consider investing in pop-up moments, their existence is an invaluable way to deliver future retail experiences. Temporary retail can no longer just be a tactical or niche response by brands, instead, agile, pop-up thinking should form part of every brand’s retail strategy. CEO Neil Corrie explains, ‘The pop-up [for The Couture Club] was originally conceived as a marketing and customer acquisition exercise, but due to its fantastic commercial success, it’s being extended until April and we’re now looking for a permanent location.’ With the effort put into temporary stores, there remains scope for them to flourish from the screens of Instagram and become permanent fixtures on the retail market.

Photography by Tom Biddle.

Kevin Gill

Kevin Gill


Kevin Gill is the Founder and Head of Retail at Start Design.